By Mary Teresa Bitti
In his treatise on the New Economy, “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman confirmed what Sonja Murray and Laura Sanford have known for some time.
Technology and, more specifically, the Internet, is a great leveler, bringing people normally relegated to the fringe into the mainstream.
For the past several years, Murray, through her efforts at One Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on getting low-income families wired and online, and Sanford, president of the AT&T Foundation, have been working independently towards the same goal.
Last fall, the organizations joined forces, and just last week began rolling out a program to help bring 50,000 low-income families across the U.S. into the New Economy by equipping them with technology and plugging them into the Internet.
“The program is an extension of the digital inclusion work we have done over the last several years,” says Sanford. “Providing access right in the home has long been on our radar screen. It is easier to do the community technology access-type initiatives than getting into individual homes, but it doesn’t have the same transforming effect on those lives.”
One Economy has already seen first-hand how important the impact can be, says Murray.
In a recent evaluation of 152 One Economy families from Miami and San Jose, the findings indicate the Internet allowed these families to feel more connected to their communities and provided tools for them to advocate for themselves.
When asked what they liked best about their home, one child responded: “I like my computer best, because I no longer feel different.”
AccessAll is a three-year, $100 million initiative consisting of $70 million in grants and contributions from AT&T and the AT&T Foundation and a $30 million in-kind donation of Internet access.
Nearly half the funding will be channeled through One Economy in a two-pronged approach to bring technology to those who can’t afford it.
Together with Habitat for Humanity, One Economy and AT&T will equip 15,000 homes with a computer, printer and desktop software, plus two years of free Internet access.
All 589 Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the AT&T service territory will be eligible for the program.
One Economy will also work with state housing finance agencies, developers of multi-family housing, local governments and community-based organizations in various cities throughout the U.S. to provide another 35,000 households with access to low-cost computer systems and free Internet access.
Each of the 50,000 families will also receive free training through AT&T Pioneer, a volunteer organization made up of company employees and retirees.
Volunteers will set up the computers, hook them up to the Internet and spend about an hour helping family members understand how to use email and navigate the web.
“Each computer will have a customized set-up, with links to school websites so parents and kids can check on homework assignments, favorite news sites, and so on,” says Murray.
In addition, One Economy is hooking up with local community technology centers to provide additional support.
“These tech-savvy mentors will be available for a six-to-eight-week period online,” says Murray. “People will get as much training as they need.”
The need for such an initiative is immense, say project organizers.
More than nine in 10 Fortune 500 companies now hire employees online, a stark contrast from 1998, when only about three in 10 were doing the same, a recent study by iLogos Research says.
And according to projections from the U.S. Department of Labor, 16 of the 20 fastest-growing jobs through 2014 will require computer skills.
Computers are equally important for students, given that more than eight in 10 have coursework that requires using the Internet at home, says Murray, and teenagers who have access to home computers are more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t.
“Technology is the thing that is going to make the difference in combating poverty,” says Sarah Brachle, director of policy and research for One Economy. “If you can plug in you can compete.”